Why Tom Hardy Can Be So Hard to Understand

Dialect experts — including those who have coached the actor on his accents — dissect the most divisive aspect of the 'Venom' star's work.
Courtesy of Photofest
'The Dark Knight Rises'; 'Venom'; 'The Revenant'

In late 2011 when audiences saw the Imax prologue of The Dark Knight Rises ahead of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, they made a startling discovery: Many of them couldn't understand Tom Hardy, who played the villainous, mask-wearing Bane with a pronounced accent. It seemed like a sound-mixing problem, but when The Dark Knight Rises opened seven months later, it sparked a narrative about the actor that persists today: He's just hard to understand onscreen.

That legend continued to build later in 2012 with Lawless, which saw critics have a field day with his Southern accent. "Mr. Hardy mostly grunts, growls and ribbits, occasionally interrupting his angry bullfrog impersonation to deliver down-home bromides that make him sound like Toby Keith choking on a Cheeto," The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote.

That wasn't the only time one of Hardy's accents met an animal comparison. In 2015, Hardy would play a Russian in Child 44, and Time Out's Tom Huddleston wrote that "he barks and gulps like a demented sea lion." The rest of that year laid out a pattern for Hardy. "This year alone, the actor has created at least four memorable big screen characterizations in which you can't really understand everything he says," The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy wrote in his review of The Revenant in which he played a grizzled frontiersman.

In this week's Venom, Hardy adopts a New York accent to play journalist Eddie Brock, and while his voice is surely one of the least remarked-upon things about that film that critics are savaging, Hardy's accents have become nearly as notorious as his many mask-wearing performances.

His accents are not always regionally accurate. They don't always seem necessary (at first). And they're not always intelligible. But does that mean they are bad?

To dialect coach Erik Singer, who's brought significant attention to accents in film and television with his YouTube videos for Wired, Hardy's intelligibility does occasionally stand out.

"I'm not a fan of that," Singer tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Both because I think it distracts from the story when you have to try to figure out what someone's just said, but also because in Hardy's case, it's clearly not his only option!"

But while some critics have been harsh over the years, Singer believes that the problem is minor and that Hardy is a strong vocal performer.

"I'm really impressed by the way he plays with intonation — the music of an accent," Singer says. "I think it's something he hears really keenly and, I suspect, sinks his teeth into first, whether he's working from a real-life source or working more from imagination and pastiche."

Hardy has played a few real-life people, as well as characters from distinct regions. Regarding his accents for notorious British prisoner Charles Bronson (Bronson) and legendary gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Legend), Singer says that Hardy does fine work. Even though Hardy himself worries that his Welsh accent for Locke is off, having based it on someone whom he later found out is actually English, Singer says that he certainly sounds Welsh.

Those results stem from, in part, how Hardy is as a student.

"Tom is very quick on his feet," says Jerome Butler, who coached Hardy on 2014's New York-set gangster movie The Drop. "I could always see what he was doing and was able to respond to what he was bringing to the table. So I could say, 'Great, if that's the way you want to play it, maybe this sound might help.'"

Hardy dedicates himself to his accents as much he does to other aspects of his characters, like when 2011's Warrior required him to get in tip-top shape and sound like a Pittsburgh native for the MMA film.

"Tom had very, very serious physical workouts every day to get ready for the punishing martial arts bouts, but he was equally focused on the 'oral workouts,' which got him ready to speak the blue collar, working 'joe' in the movie," says Don Wadsworth, who in addition to coaching Hardy on Warrior, has worked with actors such as Bob Hoskins, Jane Seymour and Kodi Smit-McPhee. "That relaxed, slang-infused dialect is deceptively tricky."

Even though he can nail a dialect, Hardy doesn't necessarily go for total accuracy.

"Accents, dialect and vocal stuff is multilayered depending on whether I want to translate as opposed to how accurate I sound," Hardy said when The Drop came to the Toronto International Film Festival. He suggested that, for him, absolute accuracy is "not essential, necessarily," which is something Singer has talked about in his videos.

"Some [of Hardy's accents] are dead-on, some are a little iffy accuracy-wise and some can't quite be judged that way, I think, because they seem like they're deliberately hybrids or sort of bespoke, imaginatively designed constructs," Singer says.

What's important to Singer is that accents are "fully integrated" into performances. "Even when his accents are off in some way — and some definitely are — there are two other essentials he's consistently brilliant at," Singer says. "One of them is how deeply he sinks into the voice and accent of his characters. They are people who talk that way, who listen and live and breathe that way. The other is that his voice and accent choices aren't random. They're part of the overall story, theme and feel of the film."

"Some of them are unexpected, some are downright weird," Singer adds. "But there's always a reason for [them], even if we might struggle to put that reason into words — as I think Hardy himself sometimes does."

Butler would agree. "The most important thing is that we believe the character and come on board with them for the journey," he says. "You always feel there must be a person out there like the one you're watching him portray."

Perhaps it's due to how exactly Hardy learns. Wadsworth says that while some actors are more technical, "Tom feels the sounds and the placement."

While some may believe that Hardy's accents aren't perfect, there's a deeply felt, intrinsic design to each. Singer praises the design of Hardy's accent for The Revenant, but he also has a bit of trouble putting his finger on exactly what makes it so good.

"There's something… twisty about his accent, that might be taken as a reflection of [his character's] twisted soul," says Singer of the work that helped Hardy get an Oscar nomination.

That twisted quality brings back another animal comparison — this time a positive one.

"His accent is marked by the tongue pulled back from the root, bunched up in the body of the tongue, and with the tongue tip curling up and back frequently," Singer says. "This may be taking things a step too far, but it makes me think of a deadly serpent, hunkered back in on its coils, poised and ready to strike suddenly and without warning."

Singer also praises the very accent that started the debate.

"I think Bane is a brilliant vocal characterization that adds so much to that movie," he says. "The thing that makes Bane's voice original and compelling — other than the mask — is his intonation. His inflections and delivery. The incredibly expressive use of pitch range and a variety of playful inflections."